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Io, Jupiter's innermost moon, hosts mining colony Con-Am 27, a high-tech hellhole. There a veteran marshal probes some mysterious deaths of miners.
For more about Outland and the Outland Blu-ray release, see Outland Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on July 4, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Peter Hyams
Writer: Peter Hyams
Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle (I), Frances Sternhagen, Clarke Peters, Steven Berkoff, John Ratzenberger
» See full cast & crew
Outland Blu-ray Review
"Maybe They Made a Mistake"
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, July 4, 2012
When writer-director Peter Hyams kept being told he couldn't make a western, he wrote one anyway, but set it on a frontier in outer space. He called the script Io, after the moon of Jupiter on which he'd imagined an isolated mining operation where a lone marshall found himself forced to defend the principles of honesty and decency against corruption and superior numbers, armed with nothing but a shotgun, his wits and the belief that he was Doing the Right Thing. An executive of The Ladd Company, which produced the film, persuaded Hyams to change the title, after demonstrating that everyone would read it as the number ten. (They picked random people from the company halls and showed them the title page; every one of them said "ten".) The title on which they ultimately settled was Outland. As Hyams notes in his new commentary track, the space western he created was more Deadwood than The Searchers, and he gives full credit to Ridley Scott's films Alien and Blade Runner for teaching him how to depict the future in gritty, workaday imagery that let him realize a vision of how the "final frontier" might look once the galaxy was open to commercial exploitation. Gene Roddenberry also thought of westerns when he created Star Trek, but Roddenberry was an idealist who'd imagined a semi-utopian universe that had transcended capitalism. Hyams imagined something more familiar. He populated his frontier "town" with scruffy blue collar miners toiling long hours at manual labor and crowded into barracks-like dormitories. Their leisure time is spent with prostitutes or drinking in a space-age saloon with a laser light show and electronic music. No one worries about alien life forms. They worry about their hours, their bonuses and on-the-job accidents from heat, lack of oxygen and rapid decompression. Law and order are provided by hired employees of the same company that employs the miners, just as sheriffs were often hired by town authorities in the Old West. The marshall and his deputies may be there to keep the peace, but it's the company's peace. The problem arises when the company's peace and the miners' welfare come into conflict.
William T. O'Niel (Sean Connery) is two weeks into his one-year tour as marshall of the Con-Am titanium mine on Io. His wife, Carol (Kika Markham), and his son, Paul (Nicholas Barnes), have come with him, because one of the perks for senior personnel is living quarters for family members. But all is not well with the O'Niel family. Carol O'Niel can no longer stand watching her son grow up on barren mining colonies, and even though she loves her husband, she abruptly leaves with Paul for the nearest space station, there to await a return flight to Earth. O'Niel carries on, bucked up by his sergeant, Montone (James B. Sikking), who relates a similar experience. Besides, O'Niel has something to investigate. Within his short time on Io, two miners have died from explosive decompression. One tore his own spacesuit open while working outside; another deliberately exposed himself to zero atmosphere without any spacesuit at all. No autopsies were performed, because there wasn't much left to examine, and the remains were immediately shipped back to the company. O'Niel finds all of this troubling and asks the company doctor, Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), to compile statistics on any similar deaths within the last six months. The relationship between Marshall O'Niel and Dr. Lazarus is essential to Outland and unlike any other in the film. They begin as adversaries and end up as respectful, if not exactly warm-hearted, friends. Hyams originally wrote the part for a specific male actor, then changed his mind and decided to cast it with a woman, without rewriting the role. On the recommendation of his sister, a casting director, he gave the part to Sternhagen, who remains a respected character actor and an accomplished theater actress. She and Connery established a unique rhythm that turned otherwise ordinary exchanges between the cranky doctor and the impatient marshall into comic relief, and also enabled the pair to become the moral center of the film. Without Lazarus, O'Niel would be a handsome action figure with family problems; with her, he becomes a hero. It's to Lazarus that O'Niel explains why he's pressing this fight, when he could simply look the other way, finish out his contract and leave to join his family:
I found out I was supposed to be something I didn't like. That's what's in the program. That's my rotten little part in the rotten machine. I don't like it. So I'm going to find out if they're right.It turns out there's illegal drug trafficking among the miners. The head of it all is the mine's general manager, Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle, who, according to Hyams, didn't understand his role until he saw the film cut together, at which point he thanked Hyams for giving him the part). Note that this is not a spoiler; Sheppard all but wears a "villain" sign around his neck from the moment he appears. When O'Niel tries to interfere with Sheppard's operation, the boss tries to buy off the marshall. When that doesn't work, he threatens. When that doesn't work, he attacks. When that doesn't work, he arranges for contract killers to arrive on the next weekly shuttle. O'Niel, who has been monitoring all of Sheppard's communications, has to sit and watch the clock count down to the shuttle's arrival, High Noon-style, knowing that he'll have to fight for his life. Word has been spread throughout the colony, including among his own deputies, to lay low. O'Niel is on his own. Having studied Ridley Scott's visual style for outer space in Alien, Hyams didn't just copy it, but he also added to it. His long tracking shots following miners and other personnel through colony corridors recall Scott's takes fore and aft of crew members racing around the Nostromo, but Hyams also tracks them in the vertical plane. One of his most elaborate set pieces involves O'Niel chasing a suspect on foot through the crew quarters, up stairs and down, across divides, along catwalks, eventually into the mess hall and along tabletops and then to the kitchen. The camera shots and editing choices (by future action director Stuart Baird) are designed to give a sense of movement in all directions. Even today, they hold up as a sterling example of how to edit an action sequence fast without chopping it into nonsense. The special effects pre-date the CG era and are primarily model and optical work. Individual mileage will vary, but personally I prefer them to anything I've ever seen from computer artisans. For the grimy frontier look that Hyams wanted, you can't beat real objects, even at a fraction of the scale.
Outland Blu-ray, Video Quality
Seldom has the usual claim that "the Blu-ray looks better than the DVD" been less relevant than in the case of Outland. The DVD of Outland was one of the nadirs of that format, with a soft, noisy image beset by aliasing and interference. It routinely topped lists of DVDs in need of new transfers and remastering. Almost anything would look "better". Well, there's a new transfer at last, it's on Blu-ray, and the DVD has been rendered irrelevant (except, maybe, as landfill). Hyams has done his own cinematography for most of his career, and as he makes clear on the commentary track, he was closely involved in the cinematography for Outland, for which the credited cinematographer is Stephen Goldblatt. Hyams is famous (and often cursed) for his dark images. On the Blu-ray's commentary, he mocks his IMDb bio, which claims that he likes to shoot in "natural light levels". What he likes, he says, is to be on a soundstage (all of Outland was shot at Pinewood Studios), where none of the light is natural and all of it can be controlled. When Hyams plunges large portions of the frame into darkness or shadow, it represents a deliberate choice on his part. One can disagree with the choice aesthetically, but it has nothing to do with "natural light". To accurately represent Hyams' preferred style of lighting, an image must have true blacks, and Warner's 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray delivers, a feature that becomes immediately evident in the opening establishing shots of the Io mining facility, where detail on the elaborately crafted miniatures can be made out even when they are only slightly illuminated against the optically superimposed background plates of starfields and the planet Jupiter. The same level of detail is evident in the non-FX shots of the miners' working and living facilties, or the O'Niels' living quarters, or the marshall's office, where tools, files, personal items and other assorted objects are randomly strewn about, as they would be in the terrestrial equivalent of such places. All of this is visible without noise or interference, just a light pattern of film grain that you have to pay special attention to see, because it's well controlled. Colors are extremely vivid when called for, whether it's the bloody red of injuries, or the bright green of the facility's greenhouse (where one "bushwacker" goes looking for his victim), or the blue of the law enforcement uniforms, which contrast sharply with bright whites in the marshall's service offices and also the infirmary. Someone somewhere will probably claim "DNR", because somebody always does, but in fact there is no evidence of detail-stripping or degraining on this transfer, nor is there any indication of artificial sharpening. Nor did I notice any compression artifacts. The darkness of Hyams' photographic style and the softness inherent in pre-CG FX may give pause to some viewers, but this Blu-ray accurately represents the film Outland as it was made and seen in 1981 (I saw it multiple times). My score of 4.5 is based on the disc's fidelity to the original image. For those who insist on scoring it differently, please at least say why.
Outland Blu-ray, Audio Quality
In addition to Dolby Stereo on standard prints, Outland was released on a 70mm blow-up with six-track sound. The latter had "Megasound", a short-lived enhancement by Warner that did something similar to, but more limited than, the LFE channel in today's 5.1 and 7.1 formats. Hyams notes in the commentary that his main interest in the 70mm format was its sonic superiority. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track on the Blu-ray is presumably sourced from this original six-track mix, because it certainly doesn't sound like one of the half-hearted remixes we typically get when stereo soundtracks from this era are repurposed for 5.1. This track has genuinely immersive surround ambiance for large environments like the colony saloon or the miners' barracks or the depot where the miners suit up before descending into the mine. Bass extension for such scenes as the shuttle landing is deep and powerful, and it doesn't have the artificial character of something added later; it feels organically part of the original soundtrack. Dialogue is very clear, and the late Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score, which obviously evokes his own score for Alien but also looks forward in some respects to themes he would use nine years later in Total Recall (the original), is nicely woven into the mix so that it doesn't overwhelm the rest of the inventive sound design (the film's sound was nominated for an Oscar). (Note: A poster in the Blu-ray.com forum suggested the possibility of a sound mastering error, based on a single instance of hearing a sound in the left speaker when the action was occurring on the right. No time mark was provided, and I did not encounter any such phenomenon. In general, sounds appeared to me to match up with the image.)
Outland Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Outland Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Fans of Outland have waited a long time. I'm not going to say "the wait was worth it", because frankly Warner shouldn't have taken so long to redo the transfer and reissue the title. But at least, when they finally did, it was done right. Highly recommended.
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Outland Blu-ray, News and Updates
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• Warner SF, Thrillers on Blu-ray (Updated) - March 22, 2012
This summer, Warner Home Entertainment will continue transferring its library catalog onto the HD format. The studio will release Blu-rays for sixteen popular thrillers, including The Butterfly Effect, Coma, Hard to Kill, Next of Kin, Outland, and the Blu-ray ...
• Outland Blu-ray - March 21, 2012
The German branch of Warner Brothers has revealed that it is planning to release on Blu-ray director Peter Hyams' Outland (1981), starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen and Peter Boyle. The preliminary release date set by the studio is July 20th.
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